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UF mascots are not ‘celebrities’ when it comes to lawyer advertising

Senior Editor Top Stories
Albert and Alberta

Albert and Alberta are not quite celebrities, as far as Bar advertising rules go.

UF mascots “Albert” and “Alberta” alligators may be Florida icons, but they aren’t “celebrities” — at least not as defined by Bar advertising rules.

That was a Board of Governors recommendation at a July 23 meeting on Miami Beach.

With out-of-state member Brian Burgoon abstaining, the board voted to approve a Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics recommendation that a law firm’s proposed use of the mascots in television ads is permissible.

The decision overturned a Standing Committee on Advertising finding in June that the ads run afoul of Florida Bar Rule 4-7.15 (c), which prohibits the use of celebrity images or voices.

“We concluded that in the comments to the rule, the prohibition that a celebrity is an individual…typically doesn’t apply to a stuffed animal,” BRC Chair Wayne Smith told the board.

The comments to the rule state that “[a] celebrity is an individual who is known to the target audience and whose voice or image is recognizable to the intended audience,” and “[a] person can be a celebrity on a regional or local level, not just a national level.”

The question is novel. According to a staff analysis, the Bar has never been asked to weigh the celebrity status of a university mascot.

Personal injury firm Meldon Law submitted four 30-second spots for review in March after being told in August that the use of a photograph of a team mascot in an advertisement, to indicate the firm’s sponsorship of the Florida Gators, was permissible.

The TV ads went much further.

They show the firm’s founders walking across the UF football field and basketball court with the mascots. Some scenes show the mascots waving “Meldon Law” signs. Others feature the mascots and lawyers exchanging UF and Meldon Law jerseys.

Bar staff initially approved, but within 30 days, sent a notice of non-compliance.

“There are no previous decisions regarding mascots, and staff did not contemplate whether a mascot would be considered a celebrity until after the mailing of the initial notice of compliance letter,” the analysis states.

Meldon Law argued, among other things, that Albert and Alberta are “make believe characters” and not individuals, so the rule should not apply. It also argued that “there is no realistic possibility” that the ads will “unduly manipulate a reasonable adult into hiring the advertising law firm.”

The debate has given rise to a fair share of bad puns, so President Michael Tanner was surprised that the board reached its decision with little discussion.

“What, no gator jokes?” he lamented.

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